It was 78 years ago today that “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck was first published. I remember reading it for the first time in my 10th grade American Literature class 47 years ago and it’s probably time for me to read it again in the near future. Because of its vulgarity, offensive and sometimes racist language, it appears on the American Library Association‘s list of the Most Challenged Books of 21st Century. It also is ranked number 6 on Amazon’s Top 100 Books of all Time list.
Here’s what today’s The Writer’s Almanac had to say about the book.
Of Mice and Men was Steinbeck’s fifth novel (he had also published an excerpt from a novel and a book of short stories). His first novel, Cup of Gold (1929), was a total flop — it didn’t even earn back the $250 that Steinbeck received as an advance. That year, he wrote to a friend: “The book was an immature experiment written for the purpose of getting all the wise cracks (known by sophomores as epigrams) and all the autobiographical material (which hounds us until we get it said) out of my system. […] I think I shall write some very good books indeed. The next one won’t be good nor the next one, but about the fifth, I think will be above the average.”
He began work on Of Mice and Men in 1935. He and his wife, Carol, were living in his family’s three-room vacation cottage near Monterey Bay. It wasn’t meant for year-round living, but Steinbeck built a fireplace and closed off the porch, and they made do. Carol worked as a secretary, and Steinbeck’s parents gave him an allowance of $25 a month. Steinbeck’s new book was titled Something That Happened, but then he read the poem “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns, and was struck by the lines: “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men / gang aft agley, / An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, / For promis’d joy!” So he retitled his work Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck wanted to write in a new style, more like a play than a novel. He considered his audience for the story to be poor working-class people, and he thought they would be more likely to see a play than read a book.
Steinbeck had worked in California as a farm laborer, and he wanted to write about the terrible conditions he witnessed. Of Mice and Men tells the story of two laborers who are best friends: Lennie, who is big and strong with limited mental capabilities, and George, who is small and smart and looks out for Lennie. The story ends tragically after Lennie, unaware of his own strength, kills a woman. Steinbeck based the character of Lennie on a real farm laborer he knew, who killed a ranch foreman with a pitchfork after one of his friends was fired. Steinbeck made sure that the novel was tightly plotted and heavy on dialogue, ready to be adapted to the stage.
Steinbeck wrote in the spring of 1936: “My new work is really going and that makes me very happy — kind of an excitement like that you get near a dynamo from breathing pure oxygen […] This work is going quickly and should get done quickly. I’m using a new set of techniques as far as I know but I am so illy read that it may have been done. Not that that matters at all.” Then his new puppy, Toby, chewed up half of the manuscript. Steinbeck was furious, but a couple of days later, he was able to write to a friend: “Minor tragedy stalked. My setter pup, left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my ms. book. Two months work to do over again. It sets me back. There was no other draft. I was pretty mad but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically. I didn’t want to ruin a good dog on a ms. I’m not sure is good at all. He only got an ordinary spanking with his punishment flyswatter.”
He was forced to start over, but work went quickly again, and he managed to get the work to his publisher a few months later. When Of Mice and Men was published, it had already been chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club, and got great reviews. The famous playwright and director George S. Kaufman offered to produce it as a play, and Steinbeck spent a week at Kaufman’s Pennsylvania estate, where the two men worked on adapting the work for the stage. About 85 percent of the novel’s original dialogue ended up in the final play. After his week with Kaufman, Steinbeck left the East Coast. When a reporter asked him if he would stick around, he replied: “Hell no. I’ve got work to do out in California.” He refused to come back either for rehearsals or to see the final product. He did ask his publisher to call and give him a full report on the play’s opening night, but he had to go to a friend’s house to use the telephone since he didn’t have one of his own. The play was a huge hit.
Have you read “Of Mice and Men”?